©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Cultural neuroscience is a relatively new area of research that investigates cultural variation in psychological, neural, and genomic processes as a means of articulating the interrelationship of these processes and their emergent properties. A growing number of studies show that both the structure and the function of the developing human brain are shaped both by the environment and by cultural experiences.
It can be described as the study of how culture (e.g., values, practices and beliefs) shapes the brain and, in turn, how culture is shaped by the mind, brain, and genes across multiple timescales. Much like the science of Brain Function, Cultural Neuroscience attempts to bridge theory and methods from a variety of disciplines including anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and genetics.
The idea that complex behavior results from the dynamic interaction of genes and cultural environment is not new. Cultural Neuroscience, however, represents a novel empirical approach to demonstrating bi-directional interactions between culture and biology by integrating theory and methods from cultural psychology, neuroscience, and neurogenetics. Researchers in Cultural Neuroscience are attempting to explore and find answers to questions such as:
- How do cultural traits (e.g., values, beliefs, practices) shape neurobiology (e.g., genetic and neural processes) and behavior?
- How do neurobiological mechanisms (e.g., genetic and neural processes) facilitate the emergence and transmission of cultural traits?
Emerging answers are pointing to brain differences based on culture; uncovering neurobiological bases for well-known, as well as for unexpected, cultural differences in the way in which brains are shaped and how they function.
As Chiao and Ambady pointed out in Chapter 9 of the book entitled Cultural Neuroscience - Parsing Universality and Diversity Across Levels of Analysis:
The goals and research questions of cultural neuroscience are to a certain extent similar to those driving the modern neuroscientific study of race. In recent years, the importance of social experience on brain function has been highlighted by studies showing that racial group membership affects neural processes underlying other basic aspects of social cognition, such as face perception and recognition, as well as social evaluation and bias. Cultural neuroscience, however, is likely to illuminate how sociocultural and biological factors influence each other in ways not previously revealed by neuroscientific studies of race.
Culture and race differ in a number of important respects. Culture refers to shared meaning systems, social practices, geographical space, social and religious values, language, ways of relating, diet, and ecology. In contrast, the concept of race, which typically refers to physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and hair type shared by people of a given ancestral origin, is shrouded in controversy about whether race refers solely to biological or socially constructed features that differentiate groups of people. Individuals may belong to different races but may share the same culture. Whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians living in America, for example.
The ability for a cultural neuroscience frame to provide novel links between sociocultural and biological phenomenon is unprecedented. The development of paradigms and tools in the three fields of cultural psychology, social-cognitive-affective neuroscience, and imaging genomics make this endeavor possible in ways never previously imagined. We do not expect that the study of all psychological and biological phenomena will necessitate a cultural neuroscience approach. Rather, the goal and challenge for cultural neuroscience is to identify the phenomena that can be readily mapped within and across levels. It is these phenomena that hold the promise to provide a window into our understanding of the interplay of sociocultural and biological processes.
There are at least two foreseeable benefits of a cultural neuroscience approach for basic and applied research:
- the merging of natural and social sciences
- the enhancement in the condition and care of human health across different cultural groups.
Emerging research results are sure to trigger discussions about the plasticity of the human brain and about the age-old "chicken-or-the-egg" controversy. All else aside, the results are sure to be interesting and to provide much food for thought!